The Met's Public Domain Restrictions

The dense field of Property Law is rife with bland cases on land transfers, easements, and conveyances. The course consists of reading case after case on neighbors arguing over fences or tenants demanding repairs on their units. However, despite the somewhat drab litany of cases every bar exam prep student has had to go over at some point in their property class, a very interesting field that falls within Property Law and expands even further to Copyright Law and Intellectual Property Law is Art Law, a field that has been quickly gaining popularity in many law firms.

Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art ('Met') has claimed copyright over a massive trove of public domain works, causing many to question the art law department at the Met. The Met has recently made copyright claims over its public domain works, despite the fact that it has been established through Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp., 36 F. Supp. 2d 191 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) that a public domain belongs to the public; therefore, museums cannot create any new copyright on items in its public domain cache.

The Met has released a collection of high-resolution images of public domain works for people to look through and download. However, the museum is claiming complete copyright over everything, while still stating that the images are in the public domain. The terms and conditions of the public domain effectively tell people what they can and cannot do with the art, e.g. the images "may be downloaded for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only."Users must, however, cite the author and source of such images, and the citations should include the URL, but not in any way that implies endorsement of the use or the user's use of the images.

As those of you who have taken a property, intellectual property, or copyright class know, you cannot place any restrictions on works in a public domain. They can be used for any purpose, educational or commercial. Because there is no copyright, fair use is not applicable. Neither do users of the art have an obligation to cite the source of the image.

It's odd that those who write the terms and conditions for the Met did not understand this basic concept of copyright law. Yet another reason for you bar exam studiers and bar exam hopefuls to prepare and usurp the clearly ill-equipped legal team running the show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Being an art attorney isn't too shabby, especially if you get to live in New York!

Happy Studying!